Last Friday, Pokémon, in collaboration with Adidas, announced that Pikachu will represent Japan in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. I understand that the news will come as nothing short of electrifying for some readers, but the legacy of the World Cup doesn’t owe its success to Pokémon, as hard as that is to believe. So what is it that makes football the most popular sport in history?
For starters, I maintain a very marginal interest in sport in general; in part because there are few sports that I understand and even fewer that I wish to understand. Football is an exception to this. I haven’t played it since year ten when I realised that neither my feet nor my brain are responsive to the erratic movements of a ball, but I do really enjoy watching it and apparently I’m not the only one. For some, football is an expression of national identity. Unlike other sports, it’s universal in its simplicity, which makes it a powerful link between multi-millionaire athletes and the average person on the street.
In terms of fandom, in 2006 it’s been estimated that more than 715 million people watched the World Cup final; that’s almost 10 times the number that watched the Super bowl that year. In terms of competitors, 204 nations tried to qualify for 2010’s World Cup (for 32 spots). To put that in perspective, there are only 192 in the United Nations. Popular? Go figure.
The English claim to have invented football, though the Mayans played something similar with their hips, and the losers got their heads chopped off. Apparently they managed to invent the ball but somehow missed the wheel. The Chinese also claim to have discovered a Neolithic football pitch. However, it was the English who established the rules in that energetic century when they made the rules for almost every game from bridge to billiards, including some that already belonged to other people – like polo. Naturally, following its genesis, football spread through the empire, and beyond, with the same fervor and contagion not seen since the Black Plague of the 14th Century.
Quite unlike the Plague however, football is a beautiful thing. Everyone has kicked a ball in the company of other ball kickers. It isn’t the hardest game to understand, or the most difficult to play. It isn’t the most exciting, or the most sophisticated. But there is something about opposing teams of 11 men or women that speaks to humanity in a way that transcends the game. It is a new vocation of workingmen’s aspirations and identities. Furthermore, almost everyone can play well enough to enjoy it and also to understand and criticize those who play it supremely.
Despite the huge wages of the players, the vast amounts paid for clubs, the commercial milking of teams and fans, and the global TV audience, football remains a blue-collar sport, rooted in locality and common values. Footballers rarely come from the middle classes. Their heartlands are the slums and shantytowns, the favelas and mean backstreets. The marketing and manufacturing of football and footballers grow increasingly cynical, but still there is a purity at the heart of the game, a direct link from the boys on the beach to the stars in the stadium.
Another great individualistic aspect is that countries seem to play with their national characteristics. They become stereotypical. The Germans are disciplined, ruthless, and relentless, always with a huge, impenetrable goalkeeper. The Italians are vicious, vocal, and ruthless. The Argentineans, who are half Italian, play much the same way. The French are terribly inconsistent: one moment glorious and attractive, the next petulant and confused. Portugal and Spain are Europe’s underachievers (that is until Spain became a dominant force in 2008). In America, “soccer” is still considered a children’s game in many respects, so they’re still in the process of growing up. African football is also super exciting. No African country has ever gotten past the quarter-finals, but they play with an eager, individualistic enthusiasm, often without any apparent defensive strategy. In South Africa, while rugby and cricket were played by the white ascendancy, deafening football has always been the game of the township.
Brazil, the most successful footballing nation on earth, plays mesmerizing, skillful, and emotional football. They also took part in the most famous final – perhaps the most famous game – ever played. In 1950, in the huge, newly opened Maracana Stadium, in Rio, roughly 210,000 people – still the record for attendance at a sporting event – came to watch Brazil beat Uruguay. Brazil was such an immensely solid favorite that they had already cast their gold winners’ medals and composed a victory anthem. 12 minutes before time, after having equalised the score, Uruguay scored again. The stadium fell silent. It is called the greatest silence ever heard. Jules Rimet, then the president of FIFA – international football’s ruling body – said, “The silence was morbid, sometimes too difficult to bear.” Some Brazilian fans committed suicide, leaping from the upper tiers of their new stadium. The Brazilian-team members were ostracized for the rest of their lives. Some retired immediately. Most were never called to play for their country again. There is a lingering pain among Brazilians, still in a state of shock for the loss.
Some people say that sport or more broadly, winning, is a matter of life and death. As we approach this year’s World Cup – in Brazil, of all countries – I sincerely hope that no supporters plunge themselves to their death over the loss of their team. I guess the only concrete deduction we can take away from this is that everyone, both on and off the pitch, plays.
Good luck to all my teammates out there and see you in Rio.